This is not something I want to do. This isn't my fault. I am doing what the Bible requires I do. You made me do this. That's what I heard on a near-constant basis as a child living with a physically abusive father. It wasn't his fault; it was mine for disagreeing with him or defending my mother. If I didn't want to be punched, slapped, pushed, choked, or beaten, I shouldn't have done whatever it is that kids do. Now, to justify forced separation of children from their parents in what both the U.N. human rights chief and the head of the American Academy of Pediatrics have defined as child abuse, the Trump administration is using that same language.
Dr. Colleen A. Kraft, the American Academy of Pediatrics president, called Trump's family separation policy "a form of child abuse" in an appearance Monday on CBS This Morning and urged the administration to end it. The lasting trauma children experience when taken from their parents — even for a short amount of time, and even if they're eventually reunified — has been well-documented.
"There are times when we need to use strong language to convey what this is," Sandy Santana, executive director of Children's Rights, an organization that works with kids in the foster care system, tells Bustle. "It is now U.S. government policy to inflict — deliberately — trauma on children to punish parents."
According to the Women's Healing & Empowerment Network (WHEN), an abuser will blame both his victim and everyone else for his problems. When "confronted with his behavior," an abuser "gets angry, retaliates, and justifies his hurt feelings by lashing out at [the victim] and others," WHEN's website says. Trump has blamed Democrats for family separations on numerous occasions, falsely claiming that the policy is a law enacted by previous administrations that his government is now required to follow. But no law requires that families crossing the border illegally be separated.
"It is very telling that he is pointing to laws mandating this, when such laws do not exist," Santana says. "It is indicative of that shifting of blame that you sometimes see in abuse cases."
My father often blamed others for his anger, as well as his decision to express that anger by hitting his wife and children. Now the president is doing the same, only his punching bags are the Democratic Party, past administrations, and the very families his officials are separating.
"Shifting the blame and not taking responsibility for the lives of these children is exactly what an abusive authority would do," Dr. Orly Moshell, Ph.D. and trauma specialist, tells Bustle. "Because rather than come up with a plan to change or help, it's putting the responsibility on those that are least in power. In this case, it's children and their families."
It wasn't my father's fault when he hit me; I was made to feel that I got myself into the situation by talking back, failing to clean my room, or disagreeing with him during a football game. Just like the Trump administration now says immigrant parents put themselves in the position of being separated from their children, some reportedly young enough to still be breastfed.
"If you don't want your child to be separated, then don't bring them across the border illegally. It's not our fault that somebody does that," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last month, mirroring the victim-blaming that abusers deploy to gaslight their victims.
"These parents went through harrowing circumstances to get here from their countries of origin — countries that are riddled with violence, gangs, etc.," Santana says. "These are the very parents that the administration is now demonizing with its rhetoric, even though one could arguably say that these parents are looking after the best interests of their children."
The Trump administration also maintains that the facilities where the children are being detained aren't all that bad, therefore separating them from their parents isn't terrible either. Downplaying abuse is yet another tactic of the serial abuser. My father never passed up an opportunity to remind me that I didn't have it "that bad."
Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen noted during a recent White House press conference that there are "high standards" of care for those children who've been separated from their parents.
"We give them meals, we give them education, we give them medical care," Nielsen said. "There is videos, there is TVs, I visited the detention centers myself."
But Santana argues that once a child is forcibly removed from a parent, the damage is already done, and even the best environment imaginable can't erase the trauma that's already been inflicted. According to The New Yorker, the government doesn't even have a plan in place for reuniting parents and children who've been separated.
"You can put a child in a palace, and the fact that he or she has just lost the most intimate bond they have — a source of protecting, a source of sustenance, the person that they're attached to — none of that is alleviated by facilities," he says. "It doesn't reduce the anxiety, it doesn't reduce the trauma. There's almost nothing worse you can do to a child than remove him or her from him or her parents."
Nielsen's comments weren't aimed at soothing the fears of separated children and parents, though. She was speaking directly to the American people, who are increasingly subjected to the same gaslighting as migrant families in the Trump administration's quest to justify the trauma being inflicted on them.
"When the decision from a leader, or a government, is to gaslight and neglect the needs of its people, it does mimic a family that's abusive," Dr. Moshell says. "It creates a lot of fear and mistrust in the society and its ability to assume the government cares about them and will always make the right decision."
I was born in the United States and, though I am Puerto Rican, I am privileged to not have my worth questioned based on where I live or what I look like. I don't know what it's like to be ripped from my mother's arms, terrified and alone, then put in a cage with 20 other frightened children.
But I do know what it's like to endure abuse at a young age and how that impacts the rest of your life. I know what it's like to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. I know what it's like to have your abuser assure you that it wasn't their fault and that you made them do it. Hopefully sharing my own experience allows you to see this family separation policy and the messaging around it with clear eyes and call it like it is.
This perspective is reflective of the author's opinion, and is part of a larger, feminist discourse.